Recent reports about mold in residence halls and the spread of viruses among students are an important reminder that threats to campus safety can be biological and may trigger the Jeanne Clery Act’s emergency notification requirement just like a criminal or environmental threat would. Effective compliance with Clery in these situations requires open communication among various departments on campus – including residence life, the health center, and campus public safety – to identify potential threats and then issue notifications. This should be bolstered with both policies and good relationships.
While the Clery Act’s emergency notification requirement, added in 2008, is best known in the context of threats like mass shootings and hurricanes it actually has a much broader “all hazards” scope. The U.S. Department of Education’s implementing regulations provide that “If there is an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on campus… an institution must follow its emergency notification procedures”. The notable distinction here is “health or”.
The Education Department (ED) discussed how emergency notifications differ from timely warnings, which apply only to crimes and have been a part of the law since it was first enacted in 1990, when they proposed regulations in 2009. “The emergency notification requirement applies to a wider range of threats, such as crimes, gas leaks, highly contagious viruses, or hurricanes,” they wrote. The Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting, 2016 Edition expressly states this applies to an “outbreak of meningitis, norovirus or other serious illness”.
In terms of how institutions “confirm” a medical emergency as opposed to other types of emergencies they noted “Institutions also have the flexibility to list the organizations that may be best equipped to respond to different situations, for instance, the health department may best respond to an outbreak of a virus.” This recognizes that the units on campus that most often have emergency notification responsibilities, such as public safety or emergency management, may not have this level of health care expertise in-house.
In order for a college or university to effectively respond there must be policies in place that, consistent with various student and health care privacy requirements as well as emergency exceptions to them, provide for individual departments that may learn about potential threats to share this information internally so that assessments can be made. Institutional policies should designate which department has the requisite expertise to make decisions in various types of emergencies, or if not which off-campus agencies will be consulted.
Once a threat is confirmed policies for notifying either the segment of the campus community affected, such as a single residence hall with a mold infestation or viral outbreak, or the entire campus community should be followed “without delay”. These communications can be handled one-on-one, by mass notification, or a combination of methods. The key is that campus units work together as defined by policy and share lifesaving information with the campus community, the hallmarks of effective Clery Act compliance.